Thursday, July 25, 2013

Fearology of the Body

Yesterday I had an.. interesting experience on Google+. As a joke I posted this:

So pissed. Today I saw FB using yet another one of my selfies in their ads!  Gah! Faaacebooooook!!!!
I posted this on my Public feed. I thought it was funny. I also posted it on Facebook, where I found it.

So big deal, right? Yeah, that's what I thought, too. Until some folks started taking me to task for posting something that they consider to be too tempting for them (or maybe some imaginary lascivious person they are worried about being tempted).

Frankly, I thought the whole exchange was embarrassing. Not because I felt chastised but because I thought it displayed that not-unfounded caricature of Christians (and possibly more so, Catholics) as silly prudes--sexually oppressed and afraid of their (and others') sexuality. It is an unfortunate stereotype, and the reality that it is extrapolated from is equally unfortunate.

The reason those chastising me were wrongheaded is not that our current culture of licentiousness is right but rather that the foundation of fear upon which such a perspective is based is askew. Fear is the cornerstone of fundamentalism and the basic motivator for all that is bad in religious fundamentalism.

As Christians, we believe in the essential goodness of creation because God, the creator of all that is, visible and invisible, is essentially good. Our sexual nature as humans, while corrupted through sin, is also essentially good, and that includes our sex drive, our "sexual appetite."

Where problems involving sex arrive is with a distortion of our essentially good sexual nature. The most common distortion is inordinate desire, that is, desire that is out of proportion to what it rightly should be. From that stems the most common forms of sexual sin, such as habitual masturbation and many of the forms of sex outside of sacramental marriage. Often mixed up with inordinate desire is disordered desire, i.e., the desire for sexual gratification that is fundamentally disconnected from the primary purpose of sex--reproduction.

St. John Paul II's "theology of the body" did much to deepen Catholic thinking in a way that enhances our understanding of the positive, good nature of sex. I feel unworthy of the task of summarizing it, but the bottom line is that it provides a way to speak about sex as gift and as a language, a way to communicate our mutual, complete giving of ourselves to another in sacramental marriage, an intimate expression of that lifelong commitment, and ultimately, an expression of love that is inextricably intertwined with the purpose of procreation (and raising one's children in a family that is an extension of this self-giving love).

It is also in this way that, as St. Paul said, marriage is a reflection of the relationship of Christ and the Church, even of the infinite loving communion of persons in the Holy Trinity. This is why and how we Catholics speak of sex as beautiful and how we can cheerfully embrace the Creator's gift of sexuality to us. It is, fundamentally, a corporeal realization of theological love.

Contrast that with what I'm calling "fearology of the body." It's the perspective that is so afraid of the sexual appetite, so afraid of sexual sin, that it casts sex in an essentially negative light. Sex and sexuality become things to be shunned and avoided, or at the very least something to be dealt with from a distance with a hazmat suit on. Anything to do with sex becomes a kind of hazardous material. Dealing with sex becomes a list of don'ts, which is fine in as far as it sets more or less concrete limits, but it doesn't do much for helping us understand and realize the essentially good, theological nature of sex.

That kind of approach also warps our perspectives and makes us less free, that is, oppressed in a real sense, not in the popular sense of having limits on license but rather in the sense of being so afraid that you become not free to act, so afraid that you are not free to lovingly engage with others who do not share your perspectives, and more than that, so afraid that you begin to insist on constraining others' freedom due to your own fears and weaknesses.

And that's where this particular incident comes into view. If someone you know can't share an image of some guys standing around in their undies without taking him to task for supposedly providing an occasion of sin, your perspective on sex is seriously warped. This kind of thinking is what leads men to force women to wear burqas--because they might be tempted. It's the same kind of thinking that blames women for rapes. It is an abdication of personal responsibility and self control based in your own fears and inability to cope with your sexual appetites.

Yes, our sexual appetites are distorted due to sin. Yes, we must cultivate the virtues of temperance and fortitude, subjecting those appetites to the reason God has given us. But we must never think that mere avoidance of temptation is growth in virtue. It is, on the contrary, an indicator of a lack of the virtue of fortitude.

True self-mastery in chastity involves not this negation of our sexual nature but subjecting it to our will and channeling it into appropriate expressions. For married folk, this involves the aforementioned fidelity and mutual self giving to each other and, by extension, to our children. For celibate/unmarried folk, this means sacrificing the physical gratification of sex as an expression of our sexuality's essentially self-giving, creative, loving nature towards a larger community of persons, such as in religious communities, parishes, schools, hospitals, and even the world as a whole. In both states of life, chastity involves the integration of our sexual nature, not a rejection or fear of it.

Such fear of sexual sin also bespeaks of a misunderstanding of or lack of confidence in the grace of God. While we absolutely are called to greater virtue and holiness, which calls for action on our part, we must never become so bold as to think that it is our practice of virtue that brings us to God. God's grace is perfected in our weakness, as The Apostle put it. It is precisely that and when we do fail that we are blessed with the mercy and grace of God, which is a tremendous gift indeed, much more of a gift than if we were to achieve perfection on our own through the practice of virtue.

So we should not live in fear of our appetites, sexual or otherwise. While it is wise not to intentionally expose ourselves to occasions of sin, it is at least a bit off to try to coerce others to cater to our own weaknesses. If they choose to accommodate our weakness out of love for us, that is praiseworthy, but to require that of others for our own good is wrong.

Instead, let us focus on cultivating our own virtue in regards to our sexuality. Let us embrace it for what God meant for it to be. And for goodness' sake, let's not lose our senses of humor about such things. Humor is a good guard against fear. It also reminds us to not take ourselves too seriously and to rely on God's grace rather than our own (self-perceived) goodness.